I turned 40 last December, which underlined both the fact of my own mortality and the feeling that there is so much more I want to do and so little time in which to do it. I’ve been laboring over my book Berlin for more than ten years now, with (crossing fingers) four more to go, and my phlegmatic rate of production has been a source of great anxiety for me. So I made a decision not too long ago that I would find ways to “cheat” and take more shortcuts in my work — or to put it more palatably, to “streamline” my working process.

One way I’ve chosen to do this is to trace photographs. Many if not most cartoonists rely on photography for visual reference, but tracing is generally considered bad form, because when you do it you bypass the challenge and learning experience of drawing from scratch. More importantly, from my perspective, you run the risk of producing an obviously traced drawing, which can have a dissonant effect on the reader.

So, in the interest of saving time, I recently began to trace selective images — about 6 panels total out of City of Smoke‘s 192 pages. My rationale is pretty simple: in my philosophy of comics, content trumps technique. Visual incongruity is the only real potential drawback to tracing, so I take pains to make sure the traced image feels of a piece with its surroundings.

The Reichstag figures prominently in Berlin #16, but at the thumbnail stage it’s a harmless little blob, as you can see in the first panel here:

One of the reasons I keep my thumbnails so small is so I can conceptualize scenes without having to worry about how the heck I’m ever going to draw them. Which means when I get to the penciling stage I often review a crowd scene or urban panorama — rendered in my thumbnails as a few little squiggles — and then promptly begin beating my head against my lightbox to the refrain of, “What the **** was I thinking?!?”

Confronted with the above example, I hunted up images of the Reichstag that would roughly suit the angle of the shot in that first panel, and settled on the postcard image that leads off this entry. I began sketching away, flipping the angle mentally (the façade of the Reichstag was essentially symmetrical), and promptly stopped about 25% of the way into it. I’ve drawn pages and pages of street scenes and architecture over the years, but I balked at this one; partly because it’s such an iconic building that I didn’t want to get it wrong, and partly because I just didn’t have the patience. Who has time to draw the Reichstag from scratch? My life is half over already!

So I flipped the image in Photoshop, printed it out, and taped it to the back of the penciled panel:

And when the time came, I inked right over the top of it:

Note the word balloon conveniently placed smack on top of the building so that I don’t have to draw that part of it. That’s right — there is no low to which I will not sink! Ha ha ha ha ha!


11 Responses to “Cheating”

  1. Alec Says:

    I’ve been thinking about shortcuts a lot too Jason (only 8 years into Basewood, but fewer pages to show for it!) My friend Robin Enrico doesn’t even fill in blacks any more. He just outlines the area of black and then scans the page and fills it in photoshop.

    But the above panel doesn’t offend me at all. I mean, didn’t Hergé have assistants that specialized in drawing buildings or autos, etc? I don’t think a tracing here or there will be noticed. Especially when you go to so much effort to make it appear in your own hand…

    Anyways, I’m really enjoying your blog! See you this summer. :)

  2. Alexx Kay Says:

    Constraints often improve Art, definitely including time constraints which force one to find shortcuts. Ever done a 24-hour comic?

  3. David Says:

    You’ve paid your architectural dues, Jason. You’re entitled to give yourself a break whenever feasible. I’m still of the school of cartooning that just avoids drawing buildings and cars.

    Congrads, btw, on all the progress you’ve made with “Berlin”! It’s a marathon accomplishment in a medium made up largely of sprinters.

  4. jlutes Says:

    Constraints often improve Art, definitely including time constraints which force one to find shortcuts. Ever done a 24-hour comic?

    I have not personally done a 24-hour comic, though it’s an annual tradition here at the school (and Steve Bissette, one of my co-instructors, was the first person known to attempt one, at Scott McCloud’s urging). I love working within constraints of all kinds though, and I use them pretty heavily in in-class exercises and homework assignments.

  5. jlutes Says:

    Congrads, btw, on all the progress you’ve made with “Berlin”! It’s a marathon accomplishment in a medium made up largely of sprinters.

    Thanks, Dave. Great to hear from you!

    I researched Osamu Tezuka for a lecture I gave this semester and was blown away by his level of sprinting. Averaged out over the course of his adult life, he drew 12.5 pages a day! He had assistants in the second half of his career, but the man drew at least the characters on every single one of the 150,000 that must have dropped from his desk like leaves.

    I am definitely more of a walker. Or meanderer.

  6. Isaac Says:

    If it’s any consolation, I am dead sure that the traced Reichstag, rendered in your own inking hand, will still look more like your own drawing than Pete Mullins’s churches and obelisks look like Eddie Campbell’s drawing in From Hell.

    If you start from the tracing and fill in a scene around it, isn’t it really more like your own “appropriation” than just a paste-down shortcut?

  7. David Says:

    Jason: With “marathon”, I was talking more about distance than about speed. I consider Tezuka to have been a marathon cartoonist, for the sheer page-count and thickness of his novels. I often wonder how much his studio contributed to his output (I also wonder this about Herge’s later work). Have you ever considered putting together a studio of assistants like that? Or are you too much of an auteur (aka control freak) to let other artists have a hand in creating your vision? I’m a control freak, but I think if I had the chance and could afford to, I would hire studio assistants. My output is so slow otherwise. If you are meandering, then I’m crawling at best.

  8. Nick Holt Says:

    I’ve taken a second stab at my blog. My old AGR interview with you re: Berlin is among the old stuff I’ve begun with. Your students might find it interesting.

  9. gwen rachel stanley Says:

    It’s interesting to read about tracing images – when I was working on Paper Moon I used a lot of photo references and I found that a traced drawing would end up looking incongruous and out of place. I recall reading that Henry Darger did a lot of tracing in his work – not so much to save time but probably because he didn’t trust his ability to draw figures.

  10. - Das Weblog zu Kurt Tucholsky » Berlin und Tucholsky in feinem Strich Says:

    […] und zeitlichen Distanz nun die Stadt, die Ereignisse und Charaktere richtig getroffen? Wie er in einem Beitrag seines Weblogs erläutert, bediente er sich manchmal fotografischer Vorlagen, um sie per Photoshop-Bearbeitung in […]

  11. Jessica Martin Says:

    Dear Jason
    Hope this comment wings it’s way to you in late 2013. I am a late starter in graphic novels ( been a successful actress for most of my life so I have some excuses). I am working on a graphic novel set in 30’s London and Hollywood and someone introduced me to your beautiful, intelligent work. So just wanted to thank you for sharing these processes. I am aware of the clock ticking.. And am still driven to pursue this obsessive, all consuming endeavour!

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